RE: “Redressing The Review”

In its February 12th issue, The Daily Dartmouth printed a passionate response to The Review‘s coverage of Professor Rickford’s speech at January’s MLK Jr. Candlelight Vigil. The author begins with a cursory summary of Rickford’s message before moving on to TDR‘s article from last week. The editorial and a reply are included below.

In its most recent issue, The Dartmouth Review published history professor Russell Rickford’s speech at the 22nd Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Candlelight Vigil in full. He explains the ways in which King’s legacy — the legacy that mainstream American culture has embraced — serves to blind us from the structural racism that still plagues our society. Our annual honoring of King — rather, his sanitized, commercialized counterpart who never actually existed — is a means of self-congratulation on our nation’s supposed achievement of racial harmony. 

In reality, King was a democratic socialist; he fought for collective bargaining rights for laborers and condemned American imperialism and militarism. Yet, as historian August Meier explained, it was King’s employment of the Christian symbols of love, nonresistance and redemption that was “reassuring to the mentality of white America.” Indeed, white America loves the King who dreamt of desegregation. It loves the version of his vision that could simply be realized through the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This King shows resistance, but not too much resistance, to the status quo and, more importantly, signifies the perceived end of the era of racism — something that white America needs to believe occurred to ease its own conscience.

So in other words: America is wrong because it is quicker to celebrate MLK’s universal belief in “love, nonresistance and redemption” than his liberal political beliefs? No one has ever suggested that MLK espoused “nonresistance”. MLK is the face of nonviolent resistance in America. Surely America’s perspective here is self-explanatory.

And let’s be clear — celebrating the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement with a federal holiday is not equivalent to declaring the “end of the era of racism”.

It comes as no surprise that a writer at the Review lambasted the speech in an article about “Rickford’s musings.” The piece refused to acknowledge the distortion of the mainstream understanding of King’s legacy but also denied that this legacy could be employed as a sort of propaganda to obscure the failings of our current political and economic system. These failings, though they cannot all be properly examined here, include inequalities in health, housing, income, education and employment, especially in regard to persons of color. Yet the article’s insistence that “minorities are sometimes” — only sometimes — “still discriminated against” shows that the post-racial ideology that holidays like MLK Day are meant to instill in us is alive and well. 

Whoa there. Let’s take a breather. 

First off, The Review’s article didn’t “refuse to acknowledge the distortion of the mainstream understanding of King’s legacy”. It simply pointed out that Rickford, in his speech, was himself appropriating King’s legacy for his own purposes (i.e., leading a political demonstration at a celebration of King’s achievements), and was certainly guilty of his own distortions.

MLK’s legacy has encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in, engage in constructive discourse, and bring about change without resorting to violence. It serves as a reminder of discrimination and horrors, past and present. His legacy does not obscure our society’s failings — it illuminates them.

As Professor Rickford says, “We need an anti-racist movement.” With this we should all agree.

But then he continues: “Anti-racism doesn’t mean you’re not a racist.”

Whatever you say, dude.

[The Review’s piece] also criticized Rickford’s portrayal of American democracy as a capitalist system ruled by the rich and corporations. The Survey of Consumer Finances, published by the Federal Reserve and the best provider of data for examining the distribution of wealth, shows us that 35 percent of our nation’s wealth is distributed to the top 1 percent of our nation. The next 9 percent alone possesses another 39 percent of the wealth. The article’s sole rebuttal is that the top 1 percent contributes 40 percent of overall federal tax revenue. Actually, it contributes 40 percent of the revenue generated by individual income taxes, which is predicted to constitute only 46 percent of the total federal tax revenue in 2014. Corporations, on average, just contribute 11 percent to this total. A country with such severely skewed allocations of wealth is, as Rickford points out, “radical” indeed. 

This section is, at best, a gross mischaracterization of The Review’s article and, at worst, a dishonest attempt to make this paper appear out of touch. Our article did not deny that income inequality and the criminal justice system are serious problems facing our nation today that have disproportionate impacts on minority populations. It merely criticized Rickford for offering nothing but empty, angry rhetoric and vague platitudes in response to these problems.

The piece went on to — surprise, surprise — demonize affirmative action as an inversely racist system of quotas that reward the “unqualified” at the expense of the “hard-working,” and, in doing so, completely ignored the indispensible [sic] opportunities for advancement that such a system has provided for women and minorities. For instance, he overlooks the racial and economic segregation of the “new Jim Crow” that fuels inequality in educational opportunities and outcomes between school districts. Indeed, schools of concentrated poverty, which are often racially isolated, include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials. Affirmative action, among many other things, is crucial in compensating for the immense failings of our public school system. 

It’s unfortunate TDR just spent its entire legal budget on changeover dinner, because this passage is downright libelous. There were only two sentences on affirmative action in our article last week, and they read in full: “[Russell Rickford] supports affirmative action while claiming that we must strive for racial justice and not racial equality. Yet racial equality underpins the entire argument for affirmative action.”

Note, there’s no judgment on affirmative action here whatsoever, only an observation about a logical contradiction in Rickford’s position. No use of the words “unqualified” or “hard-working”, and no “demonization” of anything except perhaps poorly constructed ideological platforms. Surprise, surprise, indeed.

Rejecting the ideology of MLK Day, as Rickford did, does not reject the man himself. It instead points to the harsh reality of contemporary racism and classism and the ways in which they intersect. This is a reality that we must acknowledge. It should be compelling not only for minorities and the lower and middle classes but also for the upper class that thrives off of their subjugation. For how can we boast of America as the leader of the free world when such maladies are staring us in the face? We must reject indifference and look to real, effective reform.

Every student has something to add to the campus dialogue and a right to be heard, and we accomplish nothing by attempting to ostracize them for their political beliefs without listening to what they’re trying to say.

The article last week was written by an Asian man who was simply trying to call attention to some of the more problematic areas in Rickford’s speech, and it was attacked and portrayed as racist. It would have been better for The Daily Dartmouth to respond with reasoned intellectual engagement but — “surprise, surprise” — it seems it couldn’t find the words.


-Taylor D. Cathcart